Smoke plumes aplenty smudged the skies of Marion County this weekend, as flames reduced prairie grass and timber piles to blackened ash. Spring cleaning for the Kansas plains.
It’s wondrous and beautiful to many, including me. Others decry the malodorous stench that lingers in the air and on clothes. Smoke drives some with respiratory conditions inside, where they hope to be safe from airborne particulates that threaten their lungs.
Whatever your thoughts, there’s one we must hold in common — the season of fires also is a season of danger.
Firefighters know this better than anyone. At one point Saturday afternoon, five county fire departments were dealing with “controlled burns” that were out of control.
Don’t kid yourself into thinking at this time of year that it’s only grass that’s burning. Brush piles, felled trees, and garbage pits are burning, too. As dry as conditions have been, and as fickle as the Kansas winds are, the distance to nearby houses, outbuildings, cars and trucks, and livestock is best measured in seconds, not feet. Fires have reduced several outbuildings to rubble and ash in recent weeks.
Fires also recognize no property lines. What one person intended to burn, another may not have.
Most who set the fires are responsible folks. They alert county dispatchers to burns and call them off if conditions aren’t right. For the more localized burns, they have a source of water and equipment they think will be enough to take care of errant embers and flames.
However, good intentions are lousy fire extinguishers when a blaze unexpectedly roars out of control. Controlled burns thought to be out have re-ignited up to two weeks after the burn.
A controlled burn requires “reasonable means” be available to control or contain the fire, Marion County regulations say. Who determines what is reasonable? Neighbors living within a half-mile of a proposed burn are to be contacted five days prior to the burn. How often is that overlooked? A person conducting a burn must stay with it until it is extinguished. How do they decide it’s really out?
A formal permit that requires detailed plans approved by a fire safety official might prevent some of these uncontrolled fires, which in turn would save property and keep firefighters from unnecessarily putting themselves in harm’s way.
Would such a system be too cumbersome and costly to implement? If some people ignore sections of current regulations, wouldn’t they just ignore the permit system, too?
I’ve raced to several of these fires over the past few weeks to get pictures of firefighters in action. What looks like a simple field fire isn’t all that simple, and it doesn’t take much for it to change. I believe these volunteers deserve for us to look at what could be done to limit the number of out of control burns that happen. If you think you have a good answer, share it with us.
— david colburn